Category Archives: Travel

Breaking the Travel Bag Paradigm – Recap

Down with the naysayers!

Not worrying about my bag let me focus on more enjoyable things.

Not worrying about my bag let me focus on more enjoyable things.

My trip to Prague using SealLine’s Boundary pack was a smashing success. The 35L model held all of my girlfriend’s and my things perfectly, with even a bit of room to spare. Our only additional bags were a small day pack for carrying around and a small handbag with gifts for our friends. That bag ended up going into the bottom of the SealLine after we delivered the presents.

As I noted in my original post, my first trial only presented the problem of organization. To alleviate this, I picked up a Sea-to-Summit Compression Sack for my clothes, a Stuff Sack for my girlfriend’s, two small bags for toiletries and then I reused plastic bags for our shoes. With everything compartmentalized I was simply able to stack the items in order of access–shoes on bottom, clothes above and toiletries/travel documents on top).

Over the whole journey there was very minimal carrying involved simply because we were always on buses, trains, planes or in hostels. The bag actually sat in the corner the entire time we were in Moravia and then later in Prague. Hauling it to the return flight was the only time it was slightly uncomfortable, probably having something to do with the raucous amount of Czech beer that I packed in it.

The bag is tough; it’s waterproof; it’s cheap and light. If you’re worried about a lack of space, pay the extra ten bucks for the 70L–just don’t shell out $200+ for a full-featured expedition pack that will never see the light of day once you return from hostel-hopping.

My gear list:
2 Icebreaker shirts (worn)
1 Tshirt (to oblige the lady)
1 pair jeans
1 pair hiking pants
1 pair shorts (worn)
3 pairs Smartwool socks (worn)
2 pairs EMS Techwick underwear
1 pair Icebreaker Beast underwear (worn)
1 EMS Thunderhead rain jacket
1 EMS Summit Fleece
1 pair Chaco Z/1 sandals
1 pair La Sportiva FC2.0 shoes (worn)
(+ books, papers, etc.)
*I washed a few items randomly towards the end of the trip to keep things fresh, otherwise it was all zero-maintenance

Breaking the Travel Bag Paradigm

This travel tip came to me from John Davison–an extensive world traveler. If you haven’t read it yet, be sure to read some of his thoughts on India.

Old nerdy joke from my high-school math club: a pessimist says the glass is half empty, the optimist says half full. The engineer says it’s twice as big as it needs to be. For whatever reason, the average traveler is forever doomed to the paradigm of taking much more than what’s needed for a bag– be it in terms of features, capacity or price.

As an Eagle Scout I can understand “Being Prepared,” as it is after all the Boy Scout motto, but I also argue that there’s a right tool for every task. If you’re traveling, and not backpacking–for a long distance that is, your best bang-for-your-buck, practical option is to pick up a Seal-Line Boundary Pack.

Boundary Packs - what you should be taking to Europe.

Boundary Packs - what you should be taking to Europe.

It’s water tight – as in, it floats. If you’re in a jam you could even use it as a buoy to float back to your ship (just ask John). A lot of packs are “water-proof” and made of water-proof materials but not made with “water-proof construction” and then there’s Gore-tex and eVent and…none of it is going to be as impenetrable as this bag. It’s made of thick vinyl and holds air like an opera singer, an especially fat one.

Weight wise, how does 2lb. 9oz. sound for a 70L bag? Yes, it’s only a single compartment, but how many times have you lost something because you forgot about it in your ultra-secret security pocket? What good are all of those pockets if you still can’t remember where you put things? One compartment is awesome for finding your stuff and just think of how fast security checkpoint will be when there’s only one space to open. If you’re that worried about organization, just get some Eagle Creek bags or Sea to Summit stuff sacks.

Maybe you’re leary about its practicality. Did you see the available colors? You could find your socks in the bottom of this bag in a black hole–that’s an insane yellow! Nighttime be damned! Sure it’s a little ostentatious, but I can almost guarantee that no one will mistake your bag for theirs at a baggage claim. It has a breathable shoulder harness, a waist belt and on the 70L and up models a harness that acts as a load-adjuster and grip if you’re just lugging it around. The face that it’s vinyl also means it’s not going to absorb your sweat all day while you schlep it around looking for the Hofbräuhaus. Should you need to check it on the plane, boat, etc. the harnesses come off and you’re left with a seamless, secure and water-tight bag.

John’s advice made a convert out of me so I picked one up for my upcoming trip to the Czech Republic (9 days). Packing my 35mm digital SLR, a few lenses, my clothes, shoes, books and toiletries, I know I’m going to have just enough space for my girlfriend’s things as well – and I bought the 35L. It’s also perfect carry-on size, so I won’t be waiting in any long lines once I hit the tarmac in Prague. I also won’t be rethinking the price. At $70 for a 35L, $80 for a 70L and $90 for a 115L bag, you’re still looking at one third to one quarter of what a full-fledged backpack can cost. My advice is to save the money on the pack, spend it on travel clothes (hence my two shirts for 9 days) and carry less overall.

As a caveat, it’s not a trekking bag and shouldn’t be used if you’re knocking out the Camino de Santiago or the Ho Chi Minh, but if you’re hostel hopping, island floating or just traveling around for only a few miles at a time, these bags are worth checking out.

Keep an eye out for my Prague recap in early September; I’ll let you know how the bag goes.

Life in a Round Boat

My first guest contributor is my colleague and friend from EMS, John Davison.

In the southern tip of India, in a land called Kerala, a vast network of waterways flows through the richest farmland on earth. Every year for millennia two monsoons have come to this very fortunate place, not just one as in most tropical lands. This bountiful rainfall has enabled the backwaters of Kerala to produce two robust annual harvests. This unimaginable fertility was legendary eons before the Romans traveled long and hard to trade with this verdant place. All this bounty is taken to the wanting outside world by boat and barge for there are no roads here. There never have been. In every way, water has always set the pace of life here. It was in this grand rural Venice that I was witness to yet another lesson from mother India. One that again would make apparent to me another time, another place, another way far different from my own.

IMG_0451

As is typical of someone whose assumptions are in the process of falling away, it took me a while to really see what was in front of me . . .

At sun rise pairs of men, women and children in shallow, round wicker vessels much like large bread baskets – float past the window of my boat in silence. Even though they were just a few feet away, I wouldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t happened to look up from my notebook. They made no sound. Slowly they drifted by, as they gently pulled up fine, delicate fishing nets that had been laying beneath my boat the entire night, trapping a few, flat fish that happened to swim by in the darkness. The fishermen had no paddles, oars and certainly not a motor of any sort. There was complete calm as they slowly drifted by and spun around and around on the surface of the water. The warm, still silence was complete.

IMG_0482

At first it all seemed so directionless and unguided, spinning and turning any which way in powerless circular boats that had no front or back, no left or right. But when I watched them, really watched them, I could see that they used the current, the breeze and the slow pull of the nets to guide them along. At any moment they may face east, west, north or south, but the direction they were facing ultimately didn’t matter. They were moving. They were collecting fish. They were together. And during all the slow spinning and turning no words were spoken between them. The experience of generations united them with exceptional skill. Why speak? What needed to be said? Confidence in themselves and each other was profound and absolute. As was their knowledge that these prolific backwaters would certainly give them what they needed and could only take them to where they were going. Once you trust yourself, your friends, your place why struggle to always face forward – the auspicious path just may lay in some other direction.

IMG_0485

"IMG_0486"

Kyoto’s Loving Arms

Original story from August 2006

After walking across almost the entire breadth of Tokyo the day before, I arrived in Kyoto via Shinkansen train a broken man. Flip flops had aided in developing huge blisters in the arches of my feet and others were starting on the balls and heel. How do you even say moleskin in Japanese?

Hauling my three small bags (this is before I was more travel-savvy) I oriented my map and made my way warily through the busy streets towards my hostel. One nice thing about Japan is that when you feel like you’re close to a hostel–just follow the westerners and you’ll probably find it soon enough. Kyoto’s Cheapest Inn has a bit of a cheeky name but is actually quite a nice facility for a single guy on a budget. I checked in to the group room, pulled my curtain and unpacked, soon giving in to wanderlust and the remembrance that I didn’t cross half the world to rest in my bunk bed. Also not wanting to punish my feet for the rest of my journey, I was able to locate some moleskin and patched them up good enough to tour Nijo Castle–the last stronghold of the Tokugawa Shogunate and a cozy 10 minute walk from the Inn.

Nijo-jo Castle Exterior

Nijo-jo Castle Exterior

The warm summer day was already soothing my fatigued being and I soon became witness to the still beauty of Kyoto. Flowers in full-blossom perfumed the air with an aroma of fragrance, acting almost like an aromatherapy for the traveling soul. I arrived at Nijo-jo (Japanese name) and payed the meager entry fee (600JPY); what I could see beyond the walls was already giving me a return on investment.

Entering the brilliant green courtyards, perfectly landscaped into a zen-harnessing utopia I have to say it was a pivotal moment in my life. It was the first time I had ever truly experienced something that I had waited my entire life to not only see, but to be consumed by a very presence. Seeing the sakura (cherry blossoms) dance through the warm winds with the garden orchestra, giving audience to the intricate and masterfully crafted walls and roofs of the castle harmonically became something more than a scene; it became an understanding of the people that created it and I believe in some way that in their situations I may have found the same conclusions on life, love and immortality. This setting, these elements; these are the building blocks of culture.

Nijo-Jo's Gardens

Nijo-Jo's Gardens

After countless photos of the grounds and having a tour of the interior spaces, I found myself recharged with lusting adrenaline and a new craving to know more about this land Kyoto, the capital of Japan before it knew the West. Turning my sails to the north I headed to Marutamachidori, a main east/west running street and the location of Kyoto Imperial Palace. I wouldn’t be storming the gates today, but at least wanted to scope the lay of the land.

Kyoto Imperial Palace’s landscape, like many parts of Kyoto, bears a tranquil serenity in the soothing summer air. Tapestries of the lush foliage cast shadows onto the sun-drenched golden walls of its perimeter. Doubling as a “Central Park” of the city, sporadic couplings of residents and their Shiba-Inus stroll through the grounds. The perfectly poised canines look quite at home in their native homeland.

Running low on daylight and having my fill of taking photos, I continued east on Marutamachidori hoping to at least cross the nearby river before heading in for the night. Halfway across the bridge I was stopped dead in my tracks by the ethereal beauty before me on the north side of the pass. I stepped into a nearby pedestrian alcove on the sidewalk, bewildered with the shear symphony of the river, the trees, the rocks, the people all flowing under the brilliance of the sunset. A sensation that I have only ever known there at that instant enclosed my presence; I have simply described this saying that the Earth hugged me–wallowed up and wrapped its arms around me with the utter perfection of this moment.

Kyoto's Loving Arms on Marutamachidori

Kyoto's Loving Arms on Marutamachidori

I entered Kyoto a broken, hobbling man, found something I had sought my entire life and carried on to seek its next treasure. Crossing this bridge I can only say that I was rewarded for my venture with an unfounded peace, and the absence of any pain or strife that I may have endured in arriving at that point. Japan’s warm summer winds from the southeast restored my faith in the reasons why I had gone there in the first place. As I said at Nijo-jo, seeing the elements of a culture made me better understand the people possessing the culture. On this bridge I knew that not only had the course of my future been affected, but I also held a greater admiration for my past and origins because had any one element in my life been different, then I may not have ever been here to see this myself. Kyoto became a part of me.

See Kyoto for its temples, palaces, castles, gardens, geishas and shops–but don’t forget to realize that the origins of all of those things stem from the very land itself.

Harnessing My Inner Samurai in Osaka’s Eastern Mountains

Original story from August, 2006

In Katano Japan, when your hosts asks if you can ride a motorbike, the answer is always YES – even if the last time you mounted such a steed it ended with you rolling across the pavement while watching your friend’s motorcycle skid by. Seeing true Japanese drifting in the mountains outside of Osaka is by far worth the risk.

Taking my word for it, Takashi and I sped off into the warm summer night in search of the infamous racing circuits. My transport, his father’s motorbike, ran beautifully all the way to the fuel depot–our first stop and just far enough to get my confidence up for the rest of the journey. Staying true to their formal and hospitable reputation, Japanese gas station attendants wear full-mechanic jumpsuits make quick work of filling up our small tanks. The scent of gasoline ignites my courage for the rest of the trip and certainly not taking time to chit-chat, we proceed.

With as much of a roar as our small bikes could muster, I followed Takashi through a few more winding roads–driving on the left for the first time in my life, until I could soon hear the whining screams of performance Japanese engines; I knew we must be close. Coming to a new, wider road ahead of us I could see the cars brooding, searching for the next race. We merged onto their path before pulling off to meet some other observers stationed on the opposite side of the road. Takashi spoke with them for a bit, far too fast for me to understand, and explained that the races were higher up the mountain and that if I wanted to go, we would have to ride our bikes on the track…

Knowing that I only live once, I agreed to go for it and we took off on our bikes, climbing steadily into the dark mountains. Suddenly from behind I could hear an approaching predator, fast and blaring with its electric blue headlights–our first visitor, passing us furiously to continue the circuit. Then came others, most far enough away to just be loud, one coming so close I feared the concussion would’ve put me into the grassy, gravel shoulder. But we persevered and reached a lookout point with the cars, and motorcycles, below.

I soon realized that the bikes, buzzing like turbo-injected hornets, were in a tight line formation and that only the lead bike had his headlights on! Takashi explained that headlights sap electrical engine power and so to add into the thrills–and to take a competitive edge, bike racers will turn off their lights when hot on the pack leader until they are able to overtake him. This shocked and bewildered me, and despite the inherent danger in this, I didn’t see stupidity, I saw bravery–the kind that isn’t exactly common in everyday modern life. It started to make many things about Japan make sense, the high regard of honor, saving face, and now these young men – the “swordless” Samurai, willing to perfect their craft above all costs…they inspired me.

Circuit racing, what I was observing, has apparently gained in popularity in these mountains over drifting because the police have studded the roads with reflective beacons to deter drifters from crossing the lanes (while sliding sideways). Now on many roads the goal has become having the fastest lap times, and not necessarily an actual overtaking victory. After a while more, Takashi and I decided to head home, it was after all late given my 2-hour delay in arriving to Hirakata-shi, not Hirahata as I mistakenly had done…

Taking a few pointers from my Japanese compatriots, I rode as fast as I could down the mountain roads even to the point of maxing out the bike (appx. 45mph). Admittedly–Takashi was a bit hard to keep up with. Everything was smooth sailing until close to his house there was what I saw to be a construction site on the road with strobes, flashers and men in reflective blue vests (actually a Japanese sobriety checkpoint). Takashi was stopped ahead of me and then allowed to pass, I cautiously rode up and after hearing something indistinguishable in Japanese I uttered “wakarimasen” (I don’t understand) and the officer chuckled “ahh…uhh…alcohol check…please blow here.” Though put off as an American by the involuntary breathalyzer, I was damn happy not to be arrested–Takashi later found out that I should have had an international driving permit to operate the motorbike. We arrived safely at his home and I ended what was one of the most incredible nights of my life–all possible only because I believed the idea that there’s a little Samurai in all of us.

My host, friend and motorbike guide - Takashi

My host, friend and motorbike guide - Takashi

Author’s notes: Takashi was a friend I met through HospitalityClub.org– a way to meet friends and gain free lodgings almost anywhere in the world. Katano, his town is nestled just east of the region between Kyoto and Osaka Japan. My stay with him included not only this biking adventure, but more motored tours to temples, towns and sushi spots–even a Japanese grocery store. None of it would’ve been possible without the generosity of him and his family. As for pictures, Tak and I agreed that camera flashes are not a good idea for midnight mountain racers.

Retooling Your Drawers

With travel season in full-swing, people from all walks of life are gearing up for the summer’s adventures–be it to Kilimanjaro or Uncle Bob’s house in Michigan. Equipped with a ravenous desire for bigger bags and lighter, smaller gadgets many people are overlooking the most basic travel essential, the one your mother always made you take more of–the underwear. If you’re wondering “what’s so hard about packing a few pairs of tighty whities” well, things have come a long way, and I’ll expand it a bit further than just the unmentionables.

Imagine 2 shirts, 2 underwear for a 3-month trip.

Imagine 2 shirts, 2 underwear for a 3-month trip.

Leveraging my Guide position at Eastern Mountain Sports Soho I’ve learned not only a great deal about what’s out there in the travel apparel industry, but also seen how frequently people are more concerned with buying a bigger bag to hold all of their existing wardrobe than simply getting more practical clothing–and “practical” is just the tip of the iceberg (keep reading for pun).

In the mid-90’s two companies came into the scene that literally pulled the wool over the technical apparel industry. The first SmartWool may be known to many as a magnificent sock company, when in reality they have a full line of clothing, also magnificent, and fit for many activities and outings. The second, Icebreaker (hence the prior pun) is a New Zealand-based company, rising in fame stateside. Smart Wool leans towards a folky, more organic aesthetic while Icebreaker is well, sexy…make that, very sexy.

Smartwool/IceBreaker Undies

Smartwool/IceBreaker Undies

What they share in common is that they’ve both perfected Merino wool rendering and production to the point where now underwear, or even a teeshirt can be made to feel equal to or better than a cotton counterpart. It will also wick moisture away while in the vapor state, keeping you dry and preventing the age-old dilemma of “monkey butt” brought on by cotton.

Secondly, merino wool and wool in general is a temperature regulating material–and shouldn’t be seen as something to wear just in the cold. Considering its source, New Zealand wool, the sheep need their fleece both for the cold winter in the mountains and the hot summers in the sunny, valley pastures. Both companies make shirts in different weights, which do correspond to being lighter in the summer months but given its versatility, there’s no reason why your summer travel tee shirt can’t become your base layer for winter sports when the slopes open.

Continuing on its regulating attributes, wool insulates much better when wet as compared to cotton, which drops to approximately 20% of its insulation capability as compared to 70-80% with wool. You may not think this matters in the summer, but consider the fact that warmer areas often have higher instances of hypothermia than places known for frigidness–largely because of a lack of preparation in the visitors. Higher altitudes and coastal regions with evening winds also have volatile weather and rapid drops in temperature. Wool also dries faster if it does get wet; on my most recent hiking outing, laying my shirt on a sunny rock brought it back to just-cleaned feeling in 3-5 minutes.

Now the real beauty in wool garments is the fact that the pathogenic bacteria that make clothes stink cannot readily adhere to merino fibers, therefore you can wear the shirts time after time without washing them as often! That also means that you can take less clothes, thereby saving you weight and space–and ultimately money if you don’t have to splurge on a bigger bag for your trip! I myself have been wearing one of my merino tees at least ten times without a wash and have found no traces of odor in it. Icebreaker especially touts this and has reported a certain adventurer wearing the same shirt while sailing for 60 continuous days…but you can of course moderate your own behaviors…

But let’s not forget about style. Both companies offer fits for almost all body types–with Icebreaker being the more athletic of the two. They even make polos with and without pockets for the gents and cocktail dresses for the ladies, so your casual evening wear is covered. And did I mention how hard it is to wrinkle these things?

From the green standpoint, their sourced wool is a completely sustainable and humane industry. Icebreaker goes so far as offering a BAA code on every garment, allowing you to view the sheep that grew the fleece and to have a relative idea of its living conditions. Both companies openly disapprove of the barbaric practice of mulesing and have close relationships with their supplying farms.

Origins of my Icebreaker 150GT shirt

Origins of my Icebreaker 150GT shirt

So before you go out and spend an amount equal to your plane ticket on a massive travel duffel, consider the investment of wool underwear and clothes and see how much space, weight and money you could end up saving in the long-run.

Barefoot Hippies Can Now Avoid Hep-B

What about webbed feet? 6 toes?

What about webbed feet? 6 toes?

What a horrific title–I digress. My brother sent me a link to these this morning. New from Vibram, they are a new breed of shoe offering the closest sensation to being barefoot available on the market.

Vibram Five Fingers>

Looking at the bottom of my current boots, I see that the soles are indeed provided by Vibram (though Garmont boots). That alone has got me willing to try them. As for testimonials, Gene Sterling “swears by them” and has a pair ordered for his wife (Beth). She is an avid 12+ mile/day runner, which I think will be the end-all-be-all test.

I just hope I don’t drop a rock on my foot while wearing them or something…